Death at the Selig Studios

Written by Frances McNamara
Review by Ellen Keith

University of Chicago sociologist and amateur sleuth Emily Cabot finds herself in the midst of a mystery that hits a bit too close to home. In the summer of 1909, Emily is looking forward to leaving hot Chicago for cool and calm Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where her husband and sister-in-law do research. Those plans may be suspended when her friend and colleague Detective Whitbread takes her to Selig Studios on the northwest side of the city. A man has been shot, and Emily’s brother Alden was discovered standing over the body.

Scholar Emily makes it quite clear from the beginning that she doesn’t think much of the world of movies. She’s even more appalled when she learns that Alden has left reporting and is now writing scenarios for Selig. And, it’s suspected he’s having an affair with one of Selig’s leading ladies.

I’m a fan of McNamara’s Emily Cabot series, but this outing strained my fondness. Perhaps the city’s heat has made Emily cranky, but she is an unsympathetic protagonist here. She’s dismissive of both the movies and those who find them entertaining, and she’s even more critical of her brother for taking part. Making matters worse, she loses the trust of Whitbread when she keeps information from him and isolates herself. Her husband barely appears, and she squabbles with her brother and with her daughter over their infatuation with the movies.

I’m not usually one to guess whodunit, but I did in this case because that character’s behavior made them the logical choice. Still, McNamara, a retired academic librarian, expertly captures a hot summer in Chicago in the early 20th century. Description rather than characterization is the strength in this book.